Research Press Release

Food: Modelling global famine and associated deaths from nuclear weapon detonation

Nature Food

August 16, 2022

An analysis of the impacts arising from the detonation of nuclear weapons, and the resulting injection of soot into the atmosphere, on global food shortages and famine-related deaths in six scenarios is presented in a modelling study published in Nature Food.

Nuclear weapon detonation would cause massive fires and inject soot into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight from reaching the surface and limiting food production. The scale of the resulting food shortages will depend on the amount of cooling, and changes in precipitation and surface sunlight, which are determined by the amount of soot lofted into the upper atmosphere.

Lili Xia and colleagues modelled the impacts of six atmospheric soot-injection scenarios — based on the reported stocks of nuclear-armed nations — following one week of nuclear war on major crop and wild-caught marine fish supplies, along with other food and livestock production levels. The authors then used these data to estimate the global calorie supply after stored food supplies were depleted. Even with mitigation measures — such as food waste reduction and repurposing crops grown primarily as animal feed and for biofuel by redirecting them towards human consumption — the team predict that livestock and aquatic food production could not compensate for reduced crop output in most nations. Any nuclear weapon detonation that produces more than 5 teragrams (5 trillion grams) of soot is predicted to likely cause mass food shortages in almost all countries. The authors estimate that famine-induced deaths arising from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan could be in the region of 2.5 billion in the two years following the outbreak of war; for a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia, famine-related deaths could reach 5 billion.

The authors conclude that these findings demonstrate the far-reaching implications of nuclear conflict for planetary and human health, as well as the importance of global cooperation in preventing the use of nuclear weapons.


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